UPDATED–Baltimore County Council candidate Gordon Harden did not pay his state and federal income taxes for several years until the government forced him to honor his $144,000 total debt by placing court liens against his properties.
The Towson Democrat has made fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of his campaign to win the Sept. 14 primary for the 5th District race. Harden has said he will "secure our financial future" by continuing the conservative fiscal policies of Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has endorsed him in the council race.
"I take responsibility for what I did," said Harden, who has retired from his own Nationwide Insurance agency in Owings Mills. "I don't condone it. I feel bad about it."
The 31 separate liens filed against Harden address unpaid state and federal income taxes that were due from 1997 to 2005, according to court records. In some cases, Harden took nearly 10 years to pay his taxes.
Harden was still paying back taxes, interest and penalties as recently as December 2006, court records show.
As a candidate, Harden told Patch: "I don't want citizens paying more taxes. I want more citizens paying taxes."
Yet for several years Harden chose to be a citizen who paid no taxes—until the government placed liens on his properties. A lien is a last-resort option after state and federal tax agencies have exhausted nearly all other efforts to collect, according to an Internal Revenue Service spokesman.
His biggest federal bill of $22,563 was levied against him for taxes that went unpaid in 1997 and 2000. A lien was filed in 2002. Harden paid it off, with interest and penalties, in July 2006.
That same month, Harden paid off his second largest federal tax bill of $18,078 for taxes that went unpaid in 1999, according to court records.
The 60-year-old candidate is running for the 5th District, which stretches from Perry Hall to Towson.
He said he had been prepared to answer questions about his tax lien history but that Patch was the first to ask him about it.
He said he made a deliberate decision in late 1997, when his daughter was entering college, to pay her tuition instead of his taxes.
"I paid tuition instead of taxes from 1998 until 2000. It took me eight years to catch up," he said. "But I paid every dime of it with interest."
He said a divorce at the time left him with little money as a single father raising three children.
"That was my only option at the time," he said. "I didn't really think it would go on that long."
But, he added, "If I had to do it again I would."
He said it was one of the worst times of his life.
"I was scrapping to keep my business going, to keep my employees working, to keep my kids going, and then the tuition hit," he said. "It was a horrible, horrible time."
One of Harden's primary opponents, Mike Ertel, said Harden's history of tax problems was "shocking" and "appalling."
"The people of the 5th District pay their taxes, so should their councilman," Ertel said. "I don't think most people have the choice to pay their taxes or not. You have to pay."
He also questioned county executive Smith's endorsement, which claims Harden will "preserve the county's legacy of fiscal responsibility."
"It does seem pretty hypocritical … and scary that someone like that would be responsible for the county budget and for taxing the electorate," Ertel said.
County Executive Smith said he has been aware that Harden has "had a tax issue in the years past," but that it did not change his mind about endorsing him.
"There's no question he's had some personal challenges," Smith said.
But he does not believe those private challenges have ever "negatively impact" Harden's public responsibilities.
Smith said he has known Harden for years before he started serving on the county planning board 13 years ago. Smith said he believes that Harden's tax troubles provide him "great sensitivity" to the financial struggles that families face.
"He will take that life experience into his job as county councilman," Smith said. "His strong points far outweigh the difficult times he faced around his divorce."
Harden's other council opponent Bill Paulshock said he had no comment.
Harden said he hopes voters will judge him for his 13 years of service on the county's planning board, which oversees and makes recommendations on the county budget. He said his personal finances never detracted him from making sound recommendations on government spending.
"I didn't run my life planning to run for office," he said. "I paid every dime of it with interest."
He said he viewed not paying his taxes as a loan from the government.
"They lent me the money at a high interest rate and with loan shark-type collection," Harden said.
He said his second child decided not to attend college. And that by the time his third child started, he was financially able to pay for both school and his taxes—current and delinquent.
"It wasn't fun," he said of dealing with the IRS. "Once they get unpleasant, they get very unpleasant."
"I'm not beating up the government," he added.
In the end, two of his three children have college degrees and his tax burden has been paid off.
"I didn't make a deal and pay 5 cents on the dollar," he said. "I paid like $1.05 on the dollar."
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he is not surprised that a politician claiming to be fiscally responsible would have a record of not paying his taxes.
"That's enough to give hypocrisy a bad name," Norris said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: While Patch visited the Towson courthouse to physically examine all of the tax liens filed against Gordon Harden, we know you don't have the same time. If you want to look into your candidate, CenterMaryland.org has compiled an excellent background check on all Baltimore County candidates. Check it out at these two links: